All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 2001

Don’t Expect Much From Politics

Where Else Is Such Nonsense Allowed to Flourish?

The older I get and the more I learn from observing politics, the more obvious it is that it’s no way to run a business—or almost anything else, for that matter. The deficiencies, absurdities, and perverse incentives inherent in the political process are powerful enough to frustrate anyone with the best of intentions. It frequently exalts ignorance and panders to it. And a few notable exceptions aside, it tends to attract the most mediocre talent with motives that are questionable at best.

Recently, the ninth child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Max Kennedy, flirted with the idea of running for political office. A story in the July 15 New York Times Magazine, recounted his ill-fated attempt at a stump speech riddled with trite one-liners like these: “I want to fight for all of you. I’ll commit myself heart and soul to be the kind of congressman who cares about you. I’ll dedicate myself to fighting for working families to have a fair chance. I make you this one pledge: I will always be there for you.”

Kennedy’s handler pressed him repeatedly for a “take-away message,” something of substance that his audience would remember. “What do you want people to take away from it?” he asked several different ways. The would-be candidate stammered and couldn’t think of much other than “I’m a nice guy” until finally he admitted, “I don’t know. Whatever it has to be.”

Eligible for public office? Certainly, though in this case the subject fizzled out before his campaign was ever lit, and he has presumably found useful work elsewhere. Hundreds just like Max Kennedy get elected every year. But would it ever occur to you to put someone who talks this way in charge of your business? Outside of politics, is there any other endeavor in which such nonsense is as epidemic?

Welcome to the silly side of politics. It’s characterized by no-speak, doublespeak, and stupidspeak—the use of one’s tongue, lips, and other speechmaking body parts to sway minds without ever educating them, and deceiving them if necessary. The serious side of politics comes afterwards when the elected actually do something, even if—as is often the case—it bears little resemblance to what they promised. It’s serious business in any case because it’s the part where coercion puts flesh on the rhetorical bones. What makes a politician a politician, and differentiates politics from all other walks of life, is that the politician’s words are backed up by his ability to deploy legal force.

This is not a trivial point. After all, in the grand scheme of life there are ultimately only two ways to get what you want. You can rely on voluntary action (work, production, trade, persuasion, and charity) or you can swipe. Exemplars of voluntary action are Mother Teresa, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, and the kid who delivers your newspaper. When someone who isn’t elected or appointed to any post in government swipes something, he’s a thief.

If acting in his capacity as a government official, one who might otherwise be thought of as a thief is considered at least by many to be a “public servant.” And he’s not swiping, he’s “appropriating.”

Neither Reason Nor Eloquence

No generation ever grasped the meaning of this better than that of America’s Founders. George Washington is credited with having declared that “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” In other words, even when government is no larger than what Washington wanted and does its job so well as to be a true “servant,” it’s still “dangerous.”

Indeed, it’s on this point that all the difference in the world is made. Things that rely on the regular affirmation of voluntary consent don’t look at all like those that rest on force. Whereas mutual consent encourages actual results and accountability, the political process puts a higher premium on the mere promise or claim of results and the shifting of blame to other parties.

To win or keep your patronage and support, a provider of goods or services must manufacture something of real value. A business that doesn’t produce or a charity that doesn’t meet a need will quickly disappear. To get your vote, one politician only has to look or sound better than the next, even if both of them would renege on more pledges than they would keep. In the free marketplace, you almost always get what you pay for and pay for what you get. As a potential customer, you can say, “No, thanks,” and take a walk. In politics the connection between what you pay for and what you actually get is problematic at best.

This is another way of asserting that your vote in the marketplace counts for so much more than your vote in the polling booth. Cast your dollars for the washing machine of your choice and that’s what you get—nothing more and nothing less. Pull the lever for the politician of your choice and most of the time, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some of what you do want and much of what you don’t. And the votes of a special-interest lobby may ultimately cancel yours out.

Some politicians like to rail against a practice in the private sector they call “bundling.” If you want to buy a company’s computer operating system, for example, you may also have to buy his Internet browser. That’s not much different from what happens at your local bookstore: you may only want chapter one, but you’ve got to buy the whole book. But if “bundling” is a crime, then politics is Public Enemy No. 1. In some elections the options range from Scarface to Machine Gun Kelly. Politics may not be the oldest profession, but the results are often the same.

These important distinctions between voluntary, civil society and coercion-based government explain why in politics the Max Kennedy-types are the rule rather than the exception. Say little or nothing, or say silly things, or say one thing and do another—and your prospects of success may only be enhanced. When the customers are captives, the seller may just as easily be the one who whispers seductive nonsense in their ears as the one who puts something real on their plates.

Like it or not, people judge private, voluntary activities by a higher standard than they do public acts of the political process. That’s all the more reason to keep politics a small and isolated corner of our lives. We all have so many more productive things to tend to.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is